You a Female

Close up on an eye with artfully applied eyeshadow and thick black winged eyeliner
Veronica j. Vansk [CC BY-ND 2.0] via Flickr

by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

In 2009, to promote his album 808s and Heartbreaks, I orchestrated a Kanye West cover for a music and culture magazine, where I was executive editor. The photo shoot, like all our photo shoots, was conducted documentary-style, in order to avoid studio costs; after the shoot, the label tried to charge me $250 for haircutting services, despite never having agreed on or even discussed the expense beforehand. I found the bill especially absurd in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which had forced layoffs at our publication and slashed our budgets, and I declined to be stuck with such a fee from a multimillionaire artist backed by one of the biggest labels in music. 

That same year, I wrote about the lack of girl groups in contemporary R&B, after the breakup of Destiny's Child and in the wake of the golden era of SWV, TLC, Xscape, Allure, Blaque, 4LW and the like. A parallel conversation back then held that there could only be one famous woman rapper at a time, amid a seemingly unending supply of male rappers—not just because of industry misogyny, but because the beautification process that these women ostensibly required (to please those industry misogynists) was simply too expensive. 

My story was centered around an exciting new quartet called Electrik Red, which was composed of four art school friends from New York and Toronto. You may have heard of them, but you likely haven't, despite being the concept of the newly ascendant musician The-Dream, who had become famous by writing songs like Beyoncé's “Single Ladies” and Rihanna's “Umbrella.” Electrik Red released a single album, How to Be a Lady, Vol. 1, which I still consider a terrific pop romp in the lineage of Prince and Vanity 6. In their mid-twenties, all four members of Electrik Red had been well-known professional dancers—they'd performed as Ciara's posse in the “Like a Boy” video, for one—and were thus versed in the pitfalls of the industry. Their look, like their songs, was cute, sexy, mature; they made music about their own agency and desires. Volume 2 would never come to pass

Within the major label music industry, it has been an open secret that femme artists are afflicted by something like a “pretty tax.” It costs much more to for a label to develop an artist who requires make-up and a glam team to adhere to commonly held standards of beauty and fan-expected perfection than it does to develop those who might not go in for a full beat, pristine hairstyling, the latest designer clothing (usually borrowed by a stylist on the payroll), and frequent touch-ups throughout the day and night. Since the early 2000s and 2010s, the pretty tax has led to fewer women artists being developed, in industry parlance. Which is to say: alongside the allotted budgets for marketing an album, choreographers, vocal coaches, publicists, photographers, managers, tour support, media training, and everything else a major label must ostensibly do to protect its investment—because that's what all this is, at its core—the “beautification” process, and all that entails, adds up to a big line item. (Here's a wild explainer by a tech guy, with an absurd but perhaps useful extended analogy to the Medicis and the Catholic Church during the Renaissance.) Factor in the omnipresence of social media—the idea that a young artist might feel pressured to be camera-ready anytime they appear in public, lest an unflattering image be captured by a surreptitious Instagrammer—and added costs pile up.

Meanwhile, the corporate music industry is in such decline that the publicist who asked me for $250—an executive vice president with decades of experience working for the biggest and most demanding musicians in the U.S.—was just laid off by Universal Music Group.

The pretty tax has long been discussed behind the scenes, particularly in conversations about why this woman rapper or that R&B singer hasn't been more heavily promoted by her label, despite possessing obvious talent and appeal. Few are willing to go on the record for fear of risking jobs, or future jobs. But recently, Billboard's Christine Werthman was able to break down the pretty tax in dollar terms, and wrote about the ways it has compounded in the social media era. She describes a celebrity hairstylist who commanded $12,000 for a two-day video shoot, not including travel for the hairstylist and an assistant, or agent fees; another artist spent $600,000 on a stylist for a single television appearance. Meanwhile, Werthman writes, a majority of stylists and glam teams, which is to say those who aren't Instagram celebrities in their own right, have seen their pay stagnate or decline since the 1990s. 

Women rappers basically run the mainstream at this point—as do R&B-informed girl groups, thanks pretty much exclusively to K-Pop—but in those days it was a real sausage party. In 2014, Trina explained the thinking to NPR's Code Switch like this: “You a female; I'm a dude. I'm not learning nothing from you. I just want to see you. So whatever you're talking about, I probably don't really care. I wanna just look at you.”

The same story plays out over and over: Objectification in a pas de deux with exhibitionism; beauty exchanged for money; fame, ambition, failure, “success.”

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